My Experience as a Black Woman in Panhel and Why I Dropped My Sorority

Kellyn McDonald

Growing up going to Predominantly White Institutions my entire life, the thought of joining a Panhellenic Sorority was something I always thought about doing. As my high school friends and I started applying to and getting accepted by colleges around the country, discussions surrounding Greek Life and rushing were common. When asked what my plans were, I always said yes, even though I wasn’t actually sure of my intentions. 


As the daughter of two members of the Divine Nine, historically Black fraternities and sororities, (something the majority of my friends had no clue even existed, and probably still don’t) I was conflicted. I was used to the white wealthy party culture that surrounded Panhel and IFC, and it seemed like it could be a comfortable way for me to transition to college. But, I also wanted to follow in my parents’ footsteps and feared what they would think about their daughter joining a “white” sorority. 


I wasn't a legacy, I didn’t know what to expect, and I didn’t even totally know if I would fit into majority white space. This is what so many women of color in this generation are facing when making the decision to go through with Panhellienic recruitment. It’s this big unknown filled with uncertainty and doubt. 


Despite all of this uncertainty, fall semester, I finally decided I was going to do sorority rush as well as SLG rush to feel things out. I wasn’t sure if I was going to join anything, but as winter break came and went, I became more and more excited about the possibility of joining a social group, especially a sorority. I probably watched hundreds of videos about it, from vlogs of bid day to rush outfits of the week. I went into formal recruitment extremely excited. I was the poster child of recruitment: open minded, friendly to everyone, and enthusiastic about the whole experience. I genuinely believed that I would end up where I was supposed to be, and I encouraged my friends to do the same.


The first snag I hit was getting dropped by the sorority that I was sure I was going to end up in and was really excited about. Many women had this same experience, and it can be devastating for anyone, but being Black I asked myself, “if I had the exact same personality but I looked a different way, would I have been dropped?” This was not helped by the fact that after rush, I was contacted by the girls in the sorority that I had talked to, and they told me how much they loved me and wanted to be friends. If the girls that I talked to liked me and wanted to hang out based on my personality, how did I not end up where I was sure I belonged?


This isn’t an uncommon feeling among women of color who decide to rush. A friend of mine, upset about how recruitment was going, said she felt the exact same way after getting dropped by the “good” sororities. Being in a room as a black girl trying to impress a majority white audience was uncomfortable at best. At worst, it was alienating and isolating. Rush had made me question not just my social status but also who I am at my core. How could things have ended up if I was white?


After rush, I joined a sorority that I wasn’t totally happy with, but I decided to make the best of it. And I did. I met some really amazing upperclassmen and got close with a few girls in my pledge class. I tried to be involved and hopefully turn the situation around. I started liking my chapter a lot. I never felt singled out or different in any way from the women in my specific chapter, despite the fact that it was still a white space.


Even though I felt safe and valued in my chapter, things started to eat away at me. Sure, having a mixer or party to go to most nights of the weekend was nice, but when I went and hung out with frat guys, I felt a little isolated. My white friends would go out and get hit on or go home with guys, and after awhile I got really tired of not getting the male attention that my friends were getting. It’s not like that’s why I was going out, but after awhile, waiting around for someone to notice you can be pretty lonely. Also, why did I have to be a part of this group to feel like I belonged at Duke? Why did having a wristband at Wheels make me feel like I was “in”?


This summer, when George Floyd’s murder sparked conversations all over the country about human rights and justice, I too read the horrific stories shared by @abolishdukeifcandpanhel. It’s not that I was necessarily surprised by any one story I read, but seeing them all there together was unsettling to say the least. Putting all of these stories together made them impossible to ignore. It was getting harder and harder for me to justify being a part of an organization that I knew had racist, homophoic, and sexist beginnings. However, I continued to justify my actions solely based on what I gained from my sorority and how I felt in my specific chapter. First of all, the members of my sorority were very vocal about anti-racism, donated to important causes, and pledges to educate themselves, so it was hard for me to see the extent of the damage that these groups can cause. I also couldn’t tear myself from the idea of mixers, the social status that came from being in Panhel, and how I thought being in a sorority was supposed to shape my Duke experience.


I wrote all of this because I want everyone who is reading this to understand that before I came to make the decision to drop, I was about as conflicted as someone could be. I also understand that maybe if I had been in a group that I was totally happy with or I had better experiences in the first place, this decision may have been even harder. I sympathize with people who are trying to do what they think is best, but I’ll tell you exactly why I dropped.


There are communities that I claim to care about. I claim to care about the LGBTQ+ community, low-income students, students of color, women, and assault survivors. IFC and Panhel groups are not an equitable space for these students. If I truly care about the well-being of all on this campus, being in a sorority is impossible. I can’t justify contributing to a system that oppresses others by being more or less accessible based on things that you can’t control. One day I finally saw myself as what I really was: a hypocrite and a liar. It’s that simple. It’s not just how these groups started that’s problematic, it’s all of us in them. We benefit from something that is in no way based in inclusion. 


I chose not to benefit anymore, and I urge you to do the same.